"So, two matches?" Samuel said, leafing through the previous night's papers. It was before eleven, the tang of coffee was fading from Molly's mouth, and she felt like she'd been working all day. She and Samuel had both come to the office early today. They had a lot of after-event work to do.
"Who got matched with who?" Molly asked, distracted. She was editing a flyer, deciding whether to put 'Singles Event' in point 36 or point 48. The letters needed to be eye-catching, but not desperate, a delicate balance.
"Let's see…" Samuel sat down with a squeak of his leather chair, and turned back a couple of pages. "Oh. The woman with the snort in her laugh to Mr. Hotshot, and the one who came late to… also Mr. Hotshot." He lowered the stack of papers. "Damn. I can't believe anyone was into that guy."
"Are you kidding?" Molly took her eyes off the screen to shoot Samuel a face that said 'duh.' "He was the classic ladies' man."
Her boyfriend snorted. "Women. You know, since both matches are to the same guy, it's really just one match."
"Unless he decides to date both of them."
"Wouldn't put it past him." Samuel loosened his tie. He wore one only because he wanted to, but they'd started heating the office and were still figuring out the optimal temperature. He opened his top button. Molly hated the twinge she felt when he did that. It still made her think of undressing, of sex. She was still together with Sam… sort of. They hadn't fought it out yet.
That kiss with Aster, though... It was too good to have been real. She'd been driving back from the event when she saw him sitting there in the rain. He had been waiting for hours, pitiful and stubborn in a way that was strangely compelling.
God. Why was she even thinking about it? She turned back to her computer.
"Uh, Molly, isn't that the guy you're sleeping with?"
She jumped. "What?"
Samuel was squinting out the front window, holding the blinds out of the way. "Man, what happened to him? Was he always crippled?" He whistled. "Ooh. And he just fell off the parking lot. That's embarrassing."
"Move." Molly hustled to the window. Aster was across the parking lot, one wheel on the grass that was a few inches lower than the concrete. He was rocking back and forth, stuck. Finally, he gave a large push, and went spinning onto the lot. Arms pumping, he headed straight for the office.
"What is he doing here?" Molly muttered, heading outside to meet him halfway. She repeated herself once he was within earshot.
"I must send Cassia a message." Aster rolled casually past her past her, heading not indoors but to the hiking trail behind the building. His cheeks were red from the cold, and his stubble had this morning graduated to beard status, but he was as sexy as ever. God! Why did she keep doing that?
"Aster," Molly said.
He turned around. "Yes?"
"What the fuck are you doing here?"
He spoke slowly, as if she hadn't heard the first time. "I must attempt to send my mate a signal, and the ultimate location would be the one in which I-" He stopped cold.
Molly folded her arms. "Yes, tell me. Why here? You guys were supposedly going to meet outside that strip club. What's so special about the forest?"
"We thought Danny's was a fro-yo establishment," Aster said, more to himself that anyone else. He continued onto the trail, Molly following behind him. She was aware that Samuel was likely watching them from between the blinds.
Aster positioned himself by a group of oak trees growing clustered together, where Molly had first found him. He was scanning the ground, looking for something. Attractive her ass. He was batshit crazy, from what she'd seen so far.
"How did you get all the way here?" Molly asked, scuffing at the ground with her boatshoe.
"I believe the answer is evident," Aster said, rolling over to a nearby tree to touch the bark.
"But it's like, forty-five minutes to walk. That's, what? An hour in wheelchair distance?"
"Forty seven minutes." He was staring at the band around his wrist, as if he expected it to play music or something. It didn't look like a smartwatch. More like the plastic jewelery they sold at Dollar Tree.
"It isn't working," he said.
Molly stood over his shoulder, curious. "What are you trying to do?"
Aster hesitated, the way he did before explaining a concept. "You are familiar with Google Maps, correct? What is the name of the little red balls on sticks used to mark destinations?"
"Pins?" Molly guessed.
"Yes!" Aster said. "I am trying to lay down a pin for my mate. To record this place, so she will know I was here."
"Through Google Maps?"
"No. Through a program native to… us."
Molly nodded. "For people living in tree houses, you guys are pretty advanced."
Aster rubbed his band. "Cassia does not live in a tree. She lives in the largest dwelling in Rhodium, her city. Much larger than anything in your city of Buffalo."
"So, city girl and country boy, huh?" Molly scratched the back of her neck. She wanted to ask about last night. What it meant. The possible responses flipped through her brain.
"I must use an alternative method," Aster said. "Perhaps I can carve a message into a tree."
Molly traipsed after him as he put his ear to trees, tapped his bracelet again, and a bunch of other crazy-person stuff. Finally, she'd had enough. "If you're so worried about her," she said, "Why'd you kiss me?"
It slipped out. Aster turned his wheelchair sharply. "That was a mistake."
Of course it was. But somehow hearing him say it out loud stung. "So why'd you do it?" She said. She was taunting, really.
Aster shrugged. "I felt…" he cleared his throat. "It was a mistake. Do you have a knife?"
"You can't carve into the trees. Don't be ridiculous."
"Perhaps a bright, staining material?"
Molly rolled her eyes, but she felt herself caving. "Jesus, Aster. Just come inside." The back door had two bricks as steps, so they went around to the front. When Aster rolled into the office, Samuel continued typing, pretending that Molly was alone. "I emailed Hotshot and the two women," he said. "Two matches. Pathetic."
"It's not like we usually do much better," Molly said, rooting around her desk drawer. She fished out a pen and an A4 paper for Aster. "Here," she told him. "Make a sign. We'll tack it to the tree."
He looked at the paper like it was a rotting apple. "That is ridiculous. This material will not be able to withstand rain, snow, or elements such as wind or animals."
"What a genius," Samuel commented, facing away from them. "You got a real catch there, Molly."
"How kind," Aster said. "I can understand why Molly wishes to mate with you."
"Stop it," Molly said. "Aster, you need to leave."
"Alright," Aster said, backing away from her desk. "I wish you well, then."
"You don't sound too sincere." Molly was in a foul mood, just reading for an argument. Since Samuel was giving her the cold shoulder, she had to look elsewhere.
"You have a two percent success rate," Aster said. "You may need to summon help from your God to fix that."
"You're right, but you don't have to an asshole about it."
"Interesting. I think I am beginning to grasp the figurative meaning of the insult." Aster pushed himself forward.
"Now hold on," Samuel said. "Two percent? That's assuming that we'd want everyone to say yes to everyone they met. If we'd just get ten mutual yesses that would be a complete success, because everyone gets one date."
Aster paused at the door. He swiveled around slowly. "You mentioned one man and two women. If you are counting the possible polygamous relationships, the possibilities are more numerous."
Samuel turned to Molly. "He's kidding, right?"
Molly sighed. "Probably not."
Samuel whistled for the second time in the hour. "I said it and I'll say it again. You really know how to pick 'em, Moll."
"I didn't pick anybody. I already said, I didn't sleep with him." Molly couldn't look at either of them when she said this. It wasn't aclie, exactly. Did emotional cheating count here? "You seriously have some kind of mental blockage," she continued, "Or else you think I'm total liar."
"I don't know," Samuel said, tightly like he was trying not to get angry. "I really want to believe you. But lately you two have been running all around town together and I don't know what to think."
Aster rolled over to Molly, and picked up the papers where the participants had written their choices.
"It's a matter of trusting me," Molly said, gripping the arms of her chair. "And let's not forget that you're the one who openly admitted cheating. At least I haven't fallen so low."
"This is a terrible method," Aster said, studying the papers. They both turned to him.
"Excuse me?" Molly said.
Aster pointed to the list of names. That paper belonged to one Nicholas Green, and had a list of the ten women he'd met last night. He'd only checked 'yes' to two boxes. He'd been a sweet guy, so it was too bad neither of those two women had checked 'yes' for him.
"This man met with all these women?" Aster asked.
"Yes," Samuel said. "You understand how speed dating works, right?"
Aster shook his head. "It seems quite random. Why don't you assign pairs based on compatibilty, such as likes, dislikes, and personality?"
"That's not how this kind of dating works," Molly said. "We make seperate events for people of different age brackets or niche interests, but that's it."
"Have you heard of the phenomenon of website dating?" He said.
"You mean online dating?" She said.
"Yes," Aster said. "Such organizations use questioning and simple algorithms to pair two people. Why not do the same?" He grabbed the pen and started scribbling. "If you had one hundred men and one hundred women-"
"That would be considered a mega event," Samuel interrupted. He didn't sound so predatory anymore, just interested. "We aren't big enough to do that."
Aster wasn't listening. His voice was fuller, somehow, like it had been the day they'd first met. "It would be the optimal way to create matches. You'd question each participant, and score them against those of the opposite sex, giving the pair a mutual likelihood percentage." He pointed at equations jotted across the page. "Then it would simply be a matter of multiplying two given percentages, and finding the nth root of-"
"Hold up." Molly took the sheet, looking it over as if she understood what he'd written. "How do know all this?"
Aster raised an eyebrow. "It is simple arithmetic."
"Not really." Molly handed his equations to Samuel, who looked them over with the same fake intensity. A thought occured to her.
"Aster, I don't think I've ever asked you what you do."
"What I do when?"
"As a job."
"Ah. I am a population statistician."
"So you think you can calculate love, huh?" Samuel said.
"I do not. But several rich organizations-"
Aster shot Molly a look. "Several rich companies do. Why not do the same?"
"I have to say, he's got a point." Samuel sounded apologetic. "A bunch of places in New York City do this kind of thing. It's like, online dating but instead of making your own date, you meet up for a speed dating event."
"Still. We can't…"
"Wait a second." Samuel leaned forward. "We don't have to go to that extreme. Molly, imagine if we implemented a set of questions into the website? We could do that. And then if we made a mega event, participants would be matched with compatible partners." He clicked his pen rapidly, turning to Aster. "Hey, do you know Java Script? Or Python?"
"Never mind. Come here and show me how you got this percentage."
Molly pulled her chair in to make room for Aster to roll past so he could sit near Samuel. "I guess you aren't leaving, then."
Aster shrugged. It was sometime before three that afternoon, when it became clear that Aster had found himself a job.
Reckless Behavior: a Guide to the Early Twenty First Century
Chapter Four: Employment
…seen as a way of supporting oneself, rather than one's calling. Of course, many people will study so that they may enter the field of their choice, but often, a job is seen as separate from oneself. Since many menial jobs are still being done by humans, many people end up in employment that they do not find fulfilling, for example the food service industry. Money may be their only aim.
A primary cause of this is the high cost of living. Energy is very expensive, since in this time period oil companies were still sucking up the…
Croton pulled open a cabinet, revealing boxes and jars which Cassia assumed contained food. "Oatmeal?" He said.
"Thank you," Cassia replied. Oats. She hated oats, but she didn't know any alternative food choices that might be available to this man. She watched him pull two paper pouches out a box that read Quaker, and spill the contents of each into a bowl.
She couldn't think, but she had to figure this out, quickly. She knew the protocol here- she was a historian, after all- and protocol dictated that after a 'one night stand,' the couple must either decide to further the relationship, or else the guest must leave. Cassia had already deviated from tradition because she hadn't had sex with Croton.
But she couldn't leave. She needed to stay here, to look through his things, find what she'd been sent here for. She needed to gain his trust.
The clatter of silverware brought her attention back to the kitchen. "Sorry," Croton said, bending to retrieve the spoons he'd dropped. He brought two bowls of goop to the table. The smell of cinnamon brought saliva to Cassia's mouth, even though the oats looked disgusting. She smiled at him and took a spoon.
Croton ducked his head as he shoveled his breakfast into his mouth. Cassia hadn't noticed the freckles on his nose last night, where it had been dark. His red hair seemed wispier, lighter. He projected the perfect image: an innocent, attractive young man, if not slightly boorish. He wasn't quick and did nothing to hide his body language when he spoke. Nothing criminal in his mannerisms at all. The perfect cover.
Finally, Croton cleared his throat. "About last night," he said. "I just have to ask… Did I do something wrong, or…?
"Not at all." Cassia tasted the oatmeal. It was edible. "I am shy, you see. I do not copulate with males that I do not know."
He waited too long before answering. Wrong answer, apparently. He was scrutinising her. "So… if you didn't want to sleep with me…" he scratched the back of his head. "I don't get it. I mean, when I'm working in the club and a girl starts coming onto me, it only means one thing."
"I do find you particularly attractive," Cassia offered.
"Nice try." He hunched his shoulders down. "Can I ask, uh, where are you from? I've never heard an accent like yours before. Are you Mexican?"
"You can detect an accent?" All those hours babbling Late English into her mirror seem to have amounted to nothing. She took a spoon of oatmeal, miffed.
"Sort of You just use a lot of extra words. Like you're some kind of fancy…" he blushed. "Sorry. I'm not good at this sort of thing."
Cassia studied him curiously. What sort of thing were they doing? When she didn't offer a response, he reddened to a deeper shade. "I know, I know, I'm not the kind of guy you'd usually see at a Danny's. Maybe you were expecting somebody macho or something. The bar's just a night job, you know, that a couple of friends hooked me up with. I'm not really that kind of guy." He looked up at her, imploring her to say something.
Cassia let the agony of the silence stretch. She would use it to her advantage. "Well, I've got it go," he said finally. "Classes are gonna start soon." He coughed, and moved away from the table with his bowl. Cassia watched him.
"May I stay another night?" She said.
Croton paused just as he was about to drop his dishes in the sink.
"I've had a terrible breakout- breakup- with my boyfriend," Cassia said. "I do not have a new home yet."
"Oh I don't..."
"I need emotional support. Perhaps you can supply it in the form of sexual intercourse tonight."
Croton paused. His face changed three times, each one less resisting. She had this boy right in her fingers. "Um, sure," he said, stammering as his active male imagination likely filled in the picture. He grabbed his bag from the table. "But now I really need to go. Come over, say, at six? I can make us dinner. Or order. Or if you like to cook, you know. Um-" he cleared his throat. "So, six o'clock?"
Quswàk. So he wasn't going to leave her in the house. Cassia nodded, and followed him to the door. As Croton disappeared into his bedroom to retrieve something, she slipped a hand under the window drapes and pushed up the glass frame. He held open his door and she stepped outside, waving her hand, the traditional departing gesture. She waited until he was around the block before slipping back inside.
Aster spent most of that week in Molly and Samuel's office. When he wasn't doing that, he was utilizing Molly's home computer. He had full mastery of Google, a simple search engine, and spent his time searching for Croton, who allegedly went under the name Moskowitz. That's all Aster knew. He couldn't access the folders on his Q-band for some reason, or do much else with the thing.
It turned out there were many, many Moscowitzes in Buffalo. Aster knew they were searching for a young man with a bumbling mannerism and a nefarious agenda. The internet lacked such details on the men he found. The best he got were business, addresses and phone numbers. Would Croton have set up a public lab in this century? Aster doubted it.
At seven o'clock, Molly came into the house and closed the door with her elbow. Both hands were filled with plastic bags of many colors. She was humming. All signs led Aster to believe that she had spent the day making purchases, a popular pastime in this century.
He rolled away from the living room computer and came up to the couch, where she dumped the bags.
"What did you buy?" He asked.
Molly smiled mysteriously. "Well, for the event tomorrow night, I thought you needed something a bit more…" she nodded her head at the sweatpants he was wearing. Aside from the seams that chafed because he didn't move his legs, Aster was growing fond of them.
"You need something nice to wear," she said.
"I find the clothing you've provided me to be very nice."
"Aster, they're pink. You can't go to a casual black tie event in pink sweatpants."
He looked at the bags. "You have said too many things I do not understand."
Molly laughed. She took out the Bobby pins from her hair and shook out her curls. Aster regarded her with suspicion. Shopping really did have an effect on her. She grabbed his hand and tugged gently, teasingly. "Come on, you have to see what I bought you." She swept the bags up and headed for her bedroom, kicking off her heels and shrugging off her jacket as she went along.
As soon as they were both inside the peach-painted room, Aster realized he'd never been in here before. The bedding was cream and there were few ornaments on the walls, aside from three framed seashells and a mirror that extended the length of the wall. He saw himself for the first time in full.
His knees were knocked together, toes bent inward on the footrests. His dark beard framed his face, barely leaving his chin, contrasting with the white wisps that fell into his eyes. He was not the same man that arrived here from Rhodium two weeks ago. In the mirror, he saw Molly perch at the edge of her bed, behind him. "Want to see what I bought you?"
He rotated to face her. "I do not know if I can… Accept any further gifts from you." Also, he really liked the sweatpants. These people seemed to have an aversion to comfortable clothing.
Molly pulled the first bag onto her lap. "Aster, you've been working with us for a week and we haven't payed you a cent. I mean, the ideas you have for the company… All that algorithm stuff, I feel like it's really going to turn the company around." She started laying out denim pants and collared shirts. Aster stopped her, tugging at her hand like she'd done in the other room. She looked at him with frightened eyes, like the two of them were caught doing something illegal. He dropped the hand, and swallowed.
"You have taken me into your home," he said. "There is no payment required to me. Rather, the reverse is true."
"I guess." Molly busied herself smoothing out the clothes, it seemed easier for her to talk that way. "But Aster, you… You do things for me. I can't explain it. You're so calm and you just make me feel… I don't know. Serene. I've been so relaxed since you arrived." She glanced up at him. "Am I crazy?"
Aster would have said yes just a while ago, but the truth was, he understood. When Molly watched him in rapt silence at the office or when she looked at him and blushed, it empowered him. It was embarrassing that he'd fallen so low. Cassia was his mate. She'd been selected for him, and from its inception, the selection process had never been wrong before.
"So, what have you purchased?" He said.
"Oh. Right." Molly picked up a pair of pants. "I bought a few of these since I don't know your size. I also got some shirts and a jacket to wear on top. We're gonna have to return most of this stuff, or else it's bread and butter for dinner this week." She laughed nervously. "You want to try them on?"
Aster surveyed the spread. He had gotten used to the blinding assortment of colors worn in this century, but the thought of really owning such tackiness was painful. He touched the soft fabric of a dark green short-sleeved shirt. Pushing it aside, he found a white shirt, stiffer, with buttons down the front. "This should fit," he said. At least the color was right.
"Try it on," Molly said. Aster couldn't remember the customs regarding nudity, but he decided to take Molly's word for it, and began pulling up his shirt.
"Should I go?" Molly asked.
Aster froze. There were times like this, when protocol was not clearly marked, that made them both aware of how out of place he was here. His strong suit was numbers, lines of decimals that lined up and translated into neat and tidy data. Sitting here in Molly's bedroom with his short half-off, he was at a loss.
Molly leapt up. "I'll- I'll go."
"That's alright." He bit his lip. Oh. Oh, wrong answer. Molly looked equally confounded. "If you want me to-"
"Whatever you-" Aster licked his lips, and just to end the awkwardness he pulled off his shirt. The silver nerves snaking up his back crackled at the change of temperature, sending him a shiver. He grabbed the new shirt and shouldered into it, buttoning it up quickly.
When he turned slowly to the mirror, the sight was gratifying. He stared. The shirt hugged his chest and torso in all the right places. Behind him, Molly looked smug. "And on my first try. Do I have a great eye or what?"
"You must pay close attention," Aster said. He had intended to be kind, not flirtatious, but that's how it came out. He moved closer to the bed to select something to wear with the shirt.
Molly pushed aside a few pairs of dark denim, faded denim, and khaki to reveal a pair he hadn't noticed before. They were made of stiff canvas, but they were white. Pristine white.
"These, right?" She said.
Aster took them into his fingers. They were rough, and probably too tight, but the right color. "Yes," he said. He loosened the drawstrings on the pants he was wearing.
"Wait, are you just going change in your wheelchair?" Molly looked nervous, and he had a feeling that she was ready to bolt again. "Sorry. That was rude."
"Not at all. I, ah, use the bed. I have not yet taught myself to do otherwise."
"I can show you how I do it, if you'd like."
Quswàk. The words were off his tongue too quickly.
"Okay." Molly scooted to the side, taking the rest of the clothing with her. Aster activated the brakes on his wheelchair, put one hand on the mattress to steady himself, and transferred onto the bed. He crawled towards her pillow, and flopped over onto his back, so only his ankles dangled over the edge. He was still wearing his adaptive shoes, the ones that had soles that thickened or became waterproof, depending on the situation. They weren't much use to him now. Still, he wasn't going to let Molly talk him into changing out of those.
She was watching him, so he kept his features straight, though he couldn't help the heat that rose to his cheeks as he hitched down his sweatpants, pushing them alternatively down his hips. It was work, but he tried to go as quickly as possible, if only to end this sense of voyeurism. He hadn't thought this through.
He hated looking at his legs now. They weren't functioning limbs, they were displays. Even if the distinction wasn't clearly obvious, they bothered him.
He began to work the white pants up. He bunched up each leg and lifted each ankle through the hole. Lying back, he fought the pants up his thighs, over his temperature-adjusted shorts and over his hips. He pulled up the small zipper at the top.
Now back into the wheelchair. He took a deep breath.
"You look like you're ready to go disco dancing," Molly said with a small smile. She did not seemed disturbed what she had just witnessed.
"Is that a bad thing?" He asked, scooting to the edge of the bed.
"Nah. You look great." She cleared her throat. "Aster, I just gotta know something. That kiss…"
He clenched his jaw. "I do not wish to discuss it."
"Good, because…" She played with a paper pricetag. "I've been thinking about it. A lot. And I feel really terrible. The truth is I want to try patch things up with Sam. So…"
Aster must have been making a face, because she folded her arms. "Yes. I do. It might seem crazy to you, but… I love him. So that's it."
"Then you should do so," he said. "That kiss did not mean anything to me, either. We will not repeat it."
"Yeah. Good." Though somehow Aster sensed that she did not truly mean it.
Besides for several films with remarkable amounts of nudity, Cassia could not find anything of suspicion in Croton's house. He was infuriatingly… normal. Of course, this was the best possible cover for someone bent on extreme criminal activity, but it just made things more difficult for her. She just wanted something- an address, a piece of advanced technology, illegal activity on the World Wide Web. But nothing.
After she finished putting all the cushions back on the couches, refilling the cabinets and removing her presence from the WWW, it was already midday. She spent a further half hour making the house a little less orderly, the way it had been originally. It was ridiculous how many possessions these people seemed to own.
Cassia sat down on the scratched wooden floor, cross-legged, a position that helped her think. She noticed that the wall had been bashed in in a few places. Croton told her he had two roommates, and she was not keen on meeting them.
Stimuli from her Q-band flooded her mind as soon as she closed her eyes. She would have to delve into her catalogued memories for information on Croton that she may have missed. As of now, she knew he had been a geneticist at Rhodium University, brilliant and awkward, never in the public's eye until he tunneled back to the twenty-first century. All this information came from her organic memories, as this was the first time since arrival that she was probing her vast mental database. She flipped through her folders: Ages 15-20, Ages 20-25, Ages 25-, University Classes, Research Material, and so on. She prided herself on being very organized. Aster once told her that his memories weren't in folders at all, just in order of occurance, so if he wanted to find an event, it was like flipping back the pages of an overstuffed scrapbook.
She opened up Research Material, and went straight to Croton's folder. Something was wrong. The memories were there, but she couldn't access them. They would flash before her eyes in a blur, giving off a buzz and a shiver, but that was all. Anxiously, she went through some other folders. She got the same effect.
"Quswàk," she muttered. If retrieving memories went against some law of Nature because she was from the future, well, damn Nature. The Book warned about this sort of thing in the chapter on time travel. There wasn't much she could do about it.
Cassia left the house, and stood outside of Danny's until it was time for her to meet up with Croton. She arrived at six pm precisely, so the chagrined look on his face when he opened the door was for some reason other than punctuality. Or perhaps there was a custom here of arriving late to a rendezvous?
"Oh, crap," he said.
"Do I give off a foul odour?" Cassia asked.
"What? No, not all. Sorry. Come in." He was dressed in tight pants and and a checkered shirt. Cassia hated contemporary fashion, but he did have nice legs.
The music poster across the room caught her eye as she stepped inside. She hoped Croton didn't notice that it was seven degrees straighter than it had been that morning.
He ran a hand through his hair, which was shockingly bright against his clothing. "It's just that… I totally forgot that I've got a gig tonight. I'm so sorry."
"You are tending alcohol tonight?"
"Bartending, yeah. At a hotel. Private event." He looked at her pleadingly, as if seeking permission. "It's good money."
"Excellent," Cassia said. "I will accompany you."
"You'll- what?" Croton seemed to have prepared an apology, and she'd thrown him off course. No harm in that. And if she were to accompany him, they would be in constant close proximity, and he'd be occupied enough for her to be able to search his pockets.
"What time do we leave?"
"Uh." He ran his hands thorough his hair again, flustered. "Like, seven-ish?"
"Good. Enough time for us to eat quickly." Cassia brushed past him, into the kitchen. "What did you have in mind?"
The event was scheduled to start in twenty minutes, but the hotel lounge was already buzzing. Molly felt a surge of optimism, one that she hadn't felt in a long time. Maybe it was the two drinks already in her system, but looking at all these people, dressed in their finest and eager for love, she couldn't help wondering at the potential.
"The bartender has brought only three varieties of non-alcoholic beverages," Aster observed, sticking close to her side. He seemed so small in a crowd, but if he felt that way, it didn't show. He also didn't seem to notice how some of the women kept sneaking him glances over their martinis.
"So? No one wants punch," Molly said, making her way toward the stage, where she would be MCing in a couple of minutes. "You're just a grouch because Samuel had to carry you up the stairs."
"Your mate detests me."
"That's because he thinks we hooked up."
"I do not understand."
"Oh, yes you do." Molly fixed him with a withered look.
Aster folded his arms. "Holding a beverage in each hand makes you seem overly eager. Just something I'd like to point out."
Molly lowered her two drinks to waist level. The truth was, she'd gotten one for Aster, but immediately realized that he couldn't drive his wheelchair and hold a glass at the same time. "If I hadn't hired you to help us improve our events, I'd be pissed off by now," Molly said, trying her utmost to not, in fact, sound pissed.
"I've already contrived a long list of flaws," Aster said, rolling back and forth. Molly had a retort ready but someone grabbed her elbow. It was Elaine, a plump woman who came to every singles event that she was eligible for. Molly tended to overdo the 'customer is always right' thing, which is why Elaine thought they were best friends.
"Molly," she gushed, her glittery nails digging into Molly's elbow, "It's bad for for business, having the sexiest man in the room as your date! Hello? When did you meet this guy?"
Molly's heart rate shot up as she scanned the room for Samuel. He was nowhere in hearing range. Still, she spoke at low decibel, stepping back towards to the coat rack. "I'm still dating Samuel," she said, making 'go away' eyes at Aster, who was following the conversation with a smirk. So, she could safely assume he'd heard Elaine. Great.
"Well? Who is he?" Elaine covered her mouth, as if they were sharing a secret.
"Just some guy we hired last week," Molly said, breezy as a tropical postcard. She wished it was true.
"Well, add him to the list!" Elaine said, hands on her hips. "Don't you see how everyone's staring? Dear Lord. That is some fine eye candy."
Molly snorted. "Elaine, they're staring because he's-" She felt Aster's eyes boring into her. "Because he's wearing a great suit. It was tailor made. Honestly, he's nothing to look at."
Elaine wasn't listening. She'd pulled out her phone and was reapplying her coverup into the camera. "Well," she said, snapping the compact shut, "I'm glad he's free. I'm gonna to go for it."
"But what about-"
"Please." Elaine held up a pudgy hand. "I've been speed dating for three years now, and I've never seen the likes of him at an event like this. Talk to you later."
Molly could only watch, with perhaps a bit of guilty pleasure, as Aster was not-so-subtly hit on by Buffalo's veteran speed dater. Out of the corner of her vision, though, she saw Samuel approaching her. She downed both glasses quickly.
Her boyfriend dropped his charismatic smile the moment he got to her side. "I can't believe you talked me into letting him come," he muttered, sticking a thumb in Aster's direction. "He's flirting with everyone who crosses his path. At this rate there won't be any singles left for our singles-"
"Samuel," Molly interrupted. "Try to calm down, okay? Just enjoy. Everything is going great. And try not to forget that Aster formulated a manageable business plan for us in just one week. Okay?"
Samuel chewed on his lip, something he did when he was stewing. "I can't believe Miss Temper is telling me to calm down."
"Sam, we don't have time for this." Molly glanced up at the the vintage clock above the bar. It was showtime. She took a deep breath. The velvet stage, just a foot off the ground, seemed high above everyone else. Her stomach flipped. She turned to Samuel. "Okay. You have the list of people we have to thank?"
He swished around the ice in his drink before taking a zip. "It's your speech. Why would I have it?"
The atmosphere seemed tense, all of a sudden, as if everyone was waiting for her to get up there. "You wrote it," Molly said between her teeth. "Think, Samuel. You printed it, remember? Put it in your pocket?"
He patted his leather jacket. "Not in these pockets."
"Aw, crap." Molly closed her eyes. "Maybe Aster has it?"
Molly rushed over to one of the tables, where a tall woman in green eyeshadow was chatting with Aster.
"The mating- ah, wedding was in March," Aster was saying. "It was a wonderful wedding. The color theme was blue."
"Wow," the woman said breathlessly, leaning in to hear more. Samuel cleared his throat. "Aster, can we talk to you?"
"Where's that list I made?" Samuel said as soon as they were out of earshot. He was always bent down slightly when he spoke to Aster, as if to highlight the height difference.
Aster squinted. "If I recall, it is in the left pocket of the shirt you were wearing earlier today."
"Fuck." Samuel rubbed his chin. People were throwing them glances, probably wondering when the program was going to start. "Now what?"
"Don't you remember any of the names?" Molly said, turning to Samuel.
"Yes," Aster said. "Unfortunately, I have an excellent memory."
"You didn't even read the list!" Samuel said.
"I corrected your contextual spelling errors while you ate your turkey sandwich."
"Pff. As if you speak English."
"Okay, okay!" Molly held up her hands. They had to start the program, and they had to start now. "Aster, I'm gonna go up there and say a bunch of stuff. When I start talking about who we'd like to thank, you take over. Just say as much as you can remember, and I'll fill in the rest."
"I can not do that," Aster said. "Failure at public speaking is one of my strongest vices."
"We don't really have a choice." Molly scurried up to the stage, and grabbed the mike from the table there. She tapped it twice. "If I can get everyone's attention, please?"
Heads all turned to her. She froze, but only for a second. Her hands were already slippery with sweat. God, she hated this part. "To start," she boomed, "Thank you for signing up to Valentine Speed Dating! So glad to see you all!"
There was polite clapping, even a whistle from the back. A good crowd. Molly let out a sigh of relief, and continued. She didn't look at Aster even once during her introduction.
Two minutes later, she cleared her throat. "And now, before we get you paired up, there are a few people we'd like to thank." Now she searched for Aster, who was already at the foot of the stage. There were two stairs. Crap. Her bet was that he wouldn't be carried up in front of everyone, and she was right.
He wheeled himself to a centered spot in front of the stage. Molly leaned down to pass him the microphone.
"Thank you," Aster said, his voice coming clear and crisp over the speakers. "There were multiple people to whom our gratitude is due. Firstly, the staff at Kingston Suites." There was polite clapping. Aster rattled off the list, not missing a single middle name, although his pronounciation was slightly off and he missed all the L's. Molly watched from the side of the room, her mouth hanging open. You'd think she would have noticed that Aster had a photographic memory. What other secret talents hadn't he mentioned?
"I know how you feel, girl." Elaine was beside her, hanging onto his every word. "That accent. Dayum."
"And lastly," Aster finished, "Our superb bartender, Andrew." He nodded his head at the redhead tending the bar. More scattered clapping, but everyone was antsy to meet their first speed date. Molly clapped and pushed her way to the stage.
Aster was frozen when she got there. His hands were on his wheels, the mike was in his lap and his face was deathly pale. She followed his stare to the bar, where Molly noticed, for the first time, the rigid girl sitting on a stool next to Andrew Moscowitz. Everything about her was long and thin, aside from her hair, which was cloud white and straight all around, slicked back and falling right below her chin. The girl had seen him, too, and crept forward, threading her fingers around the bartender's arm. As Molly took the stage and gave everyone their table numbers, she watched a minidrama unfold. People swarmed to the little blue tables for two, sitting down for their first five-minute meeting. Aster pumped his arms, heading for the bar.
That was Aster's girlfriend, the one he'd been looking for all this time. It had to be. So why did she feel disappointed to see her?
The first meetings were underway. Molly slipped through the crowd until she was right behind Aster.
He'd stopped a few feet from the counter. The girl- Cassia, presumably- held fast to Andrew's arm. Aster said her name. He said it as a question. The word was quiet and tender, soft consonants rolling off his tongue. Molly knew instantly why English was so awkward on him. It was too coarse, too harsh.
Cassia looked at the bartender. "I don't know this man," she said. "I've never seen him before."
Aster's eyes were burning. "May I converse with you for a moment?"
Cassia buried her head in Andrew's sleeve. "Make him go away," she said.
Andrew opened his mouth, but Aster beat him to it. "Alright," he said. "I'll go."
To be continued…